The Canadian Garden

What you passed on your way in:
look at it right and it’s seen by Tom Thomson
but you didn’t, and it was a few rocks,
some shrubs in need of water. Over at the zoo,
moose, muskoxen, and raccoons bask unbothered
in their forested enclosures, down a hill from the rest
of the spectacle. Beyond the ridge of conifers,
it could go on and on. How lifelike.
Giraffes on cleared slopes, reaching
for acacias planted thinly just a little
too far past their fence, draw crowds.

Questions and Answers

What inspired “The Canadian Garden”?

While at the Metro Toronto Zoo, I followed the map to the “Canadian Domain.” The walk was a lengthy one, through scrubby forest, and when I got there, I found only a handful of people, in contrast to the crowded “African Savanna” section I’d come from. I was struck by the spaciousness of this Canadian section, and also by the fact that it was not noteworthy: the animals were often in the distance and the landscape was not artificial, as it was in other parts of the zoo. Had it been set far from the other parts of the zoo in order to give the animals more space? Because it was deemed that few would visit it? Because some other sections intended to bridge the two hadn’t yet been developed? What did this separateness suggest about our national confidence? And if it was true that most of us saw muskoxen as rarely as we saw giraffes—perhaps even more rarely—then why did no one take the trouble to come here? At some point in my work on the poem, images of the taiga garden outside the National Gallery of Canada appeared. I’d written about this garden for the Gallery’s members’ magazine,Vernissage, several years earlier while I was working as a writer at the Gallery. The garden was designed by landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander to draw upon the imagery of Group of Seven paintings. I appreciated that paradox, that a garden was created to resemble artists’ views of the landscape that still existed not far from where the garden was established. In short, nature imitating art imitating nature.

What poetic techniques did you use in “The Canadian Garden”?

Assonance is important: “passed” and “bask,” for example. These sonic echoes help the poem to cohere despite the deliberately unsettling syntax, which is sometimes broken, sometimes extended. The poem’s opening, “What you passed on your way in,” is meant to catch the reader off guard, just as the realization that one has passed a garden without noticing is meant to be disconcerting. The opening sentence ties back to the title, a move made in many contemporary poems. Enjambment, too, is used deliberately to highlight contrasts, as in “look at it right and it’s seen by Tom Thomson / but you didn’t.” It was important to me to address the reader, though like many uses of the second person, I was really addressing myself. Finally, there’s some ironic understatement in “How lifelike,” for of course the landscape is lifelike, because it is a real landscape, shaped only by the cutting down of some trees to make room for the animals. When we’re in a primarily artificial environment, everything becomes part of the “scene.”

This poem “The Canadian Garden” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 181 (Summer 2004): 42-42.

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